Baikal Wave, a Russian environmental organization had it its computers confiscated by the police early this year. Unfortunately this story is far from unique. The official charge was that they use pirated software, but the activists themselves and third party commentators maintained that this was a mere excuse from the police, who wants to prevent the NGO from working. Eventually the computers were returned, and Baikal Wave's site was restored during the summer. The easiest way to avoid the same thing to happen again for the NGO would be to use free, non patented, software. Easy to say, but none the less true.
Microsoft's behaviour in the affair has been severly critizised, which is what motivated the New York TImes to take up the topic half a year later. The Baikal Wave activists were not surprised about the police's action, used ase they were to harrasment from the Russian police's anti-terrorist units, but they were disappointed by the big help that lawyers from Microsoft provided to the police.
Microsoft lawyers made statements describing the company as a victim and arguing that criminal charges should be pursued. Unfortunately, not only Baikal Wave but also other Russian NGO's make similar claims. Activists had sent Microsoft in Russia all kinds of documentation to show that they use legal software, but
Microsoft did not want to help us, which would have been the right thing to do,” said Marina Rikhvanova, a Baikal Environmental Wave co-chairwoman and one of Russia’s best-known environmentalists. “They said these issues had to be handled by the security services.”
According to the New York Times, Microsoft are facing
tough ethical choices in Russia, when it comes to work on a very profitable market in a far from perfect democracy, and compares the issue to the constant negotiations between China and IT providers about what amount of censorship that is suitable for Chinese netizens.
I beg to differ - this is not really the same thing as when Microsoft and Google accepted to censor its searches in China. That was also questionable but in these cases MIcrosoft and Google were involved directly with the Chinese governemnt, and they had to deal with a chinese regulation that they didn't agree with. What Microsoft's lawyers in the Baikal Wave case did was to NOT comply with Russian law, in fear of losing market share, knowing full well that they were backed by authorities in this. True - these are Russian lawyers paied by Microsoft, it is not Bill Gates himself that we are talking about, but it is hard to diminish MIcrosoft's responsibility. A few calls from the company headquarters in Redmond would most likely change the minds of lawyers, policemen and decision making politicians.
It is sad that Russia is so bad at democracy. It is also sad that Microsoft fails at taking their moral responsibility, but it would be naïve to count on them to take on such a responsibility. Bill Gates is not an evil man, but Microsoft is a billion dollar corporation, and corporations have no morals. They do business. Which is why we need NGO's like Baikal wave, a police force that is not too corrupted, and a democratic influence over legislation.
What corporations hate more than anything else is surprises. They work well in democracies, and they work well in stable dictatorships, but they can not prosper in non-predictable circumstances. (Which is probably one reason why the more unpredictable Russia gets much more wrath form the west than the reliable China). They will always prove to be the best support of the current order, if governments are wise enough to serve them. Corporations have nothing in specific against NGO's like Baikal Wave, but as a matter of fact they tend to end up on different sides in most controversial situations. I am sure that anyone that have been involved in NGO work anywhere in the world can agree with this more or less.
Microsoft has answered its critics with some bla bla, and with referring to its own program Infodonor, that aims to
provide free and low-cost software to newspapers and advocacy groups so that they are in compliance with the law. It is hard not to get the impression that the law is much more valuable to Microsoft when it comes to protecting software patents, than when it comes to protecting environmental values, or human rights.
By purchasing legal software, Baikal Wave have tried to prevent this from happening, but that strategy is weak, since it depends on MIcrosoft's good will. Especially in a state whose juridical system is as weak as in Russia. A much stronger strategy for an NGO with powerful enemies is to avoid patented software to the biggest possible extent. Patents are not a way to make money from ideas, but a weapon to be used against competitors at any given time. Microsoft, Apple, Nokia and other IT companies are fighting endless patent wars, wars that have very little to do with innovation, and very much to do with market shares. There is no reason for NGO's to get mixed up in this.
The Baikal Wave situation highlights that the important thing with free software is not that it is downloaded for free, but that you are free to use it in any way you want, and that no legal restrictions* will inhibit your work. Of course the Russian police might have tried to harras Baikal Wave even if they had used free software, but they would have had to think harder to fabricate an excuse, it would look much worse from abroad. And if Microsoft was not involved, the New York Times would talk about totalitarianism, not "tough ethical choices".
*Of course some restricitions apply also to free software - the Free Software Foundation is involved in a number of cases where they accuse Microsoft and other companies for infringing free software licenese. You are not allowed to take something for free and patent it for yourself. But these restrictions apply to software developers, not to end users. For NGO's, free software is completely safe to use.